I Failed Med School —My World Didn’t End, It Opened Up
Written by Mariam Adetona
Almost at the end of the race, in her penultimate year of med school, Mariam Adetona had her worst fears realised. But what happened next surprised her and made her a better med student and future doctor.
It was a night in February when my friend called me to come out of my female-only residential block to sit with him. It’s not uncommon for him to do this. Talking outside late into the night had helped deepen our relationship. We talk about many things from our future, to relationships and religion. However, that night was different. We had both written the paediatrics resit papers and were waiting for the results with high hopes. Passing would mean moving into the final class of medical school.
“There are rumours that four people are retaking the class,” he said.
“OMG! That’s rough. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if I fail.”
“I met with Dr X. about three days ago. I have been trying to tell you for a while now, but I just couldn’t.”
Unfortunately our grades are not private. In most Nigerian medical schools, results are usually pasted on the department's notice board with matriculation numbers and the corresponding scores. While names are not posted, if you know someone's matric number, you can see what their scores are. There was a delay in posting these scores, so my friend and I asked a teacher to reveal our grades. This lack of privacy adds to the stress and self-esteem issues in medical school, because everybody knows and that peer comparison is in your face. It’s not ideal, but that’s the way it’s always been.
I remember sitting in stunned silence, watching in the dark as the pack of cards that would be my future crumbled in front of me.
“Say something?,” my friend pleaded.
All I could think of was how, almost at the end of the race, I had just lost it all. I picked up my phone as tears blurred my sight behind my glasses and typed, “I failed Paediatrics,” to a friend. I copied and pasted the text to my group chat and to a couple of other friends.
The fear of failing is so pervasive in the aura of medical school that every free hour is spent trying to read more. It is not unusual on weekends to see students in random places on campus, heads hunched over books and print-outs. Everybody that indulges in extracurriculars always has colleagues and sometimes lecturers admonishing them to ditch the extras until after medical school. It doesn’t help that the college of medicine is on a different campus far away from other students of the university so we are insulated from the outside world, choked full with the fear of falling that most of the things we do stem from that.
The fear of failure in medical school is a hydra head and often spills into other aspects of life.
I am no stranger to loss, but failure is an entirely different thing. However, grief is grief and I know well enough to allow myself to feel it as deeply as it reaches me. It was my first time failing academically and it seemed my whole identity built on academic success was threatened. I proceeded to take two weeks off everything to feel fully sad about it all. I cried all the tears, felt the accompanying heartbreak, shame, and disappointment of failing. It was the most excruciating thing I’d ever done, but thankfully with the support of my family and friends, I didn’t feel entirely alone. But ultimately, it was my cross to bear, and bear it I did.
When I emerged from my room, which was my sanctuary, I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and move on with my life. The two-week pity party was over.
Lockdown’s Silver Lining
The lockdown was gratifying in the sense that it allowed me to gain clarity, and I knew the things I wanted out of this life. For as long as I could remember, I had always been a writer. However, it was not a career path for me. It was a leisure pursuit, something to be listed in the hobby section of my CV. Medicine wasn’t my childhood dream either, engineering was. However, after being exposed to the intricacies of the human body in secondary school, I was so intrigued I wanted to know as much as possible about all of it.
Because of my lifelong passion for writing, one of the first things I did after my two week party was to apply for writing workshops and training opportunities. I got into an investigative reporting training organised by The Cable Newspaper Journalism Foundation, and an op-ed training program organized by African Liberty. I also applied and got a scholarship for a feature writing course organised by a freelancer in Australia. Through these opportunities I built the skills and confidence to develop story ideas, interview people and pitch to media outlets. I also landed a staff writer position with a narrative media company I used to freelance for.
I realised during this journey that failure in one aspect of life, doesn't preclude success in another. While I made sure I kept in touch with the ongoings of med school, I gave my best to this new pursuit. At first, the knee-jerk response was to study more, but after talking to a mentor, he encouraged me to expand my skills in multiple areas. Moreover, I am confident of what I know and what my failings were.
This is not to say I didn't face obstacles in my writing career. Anybody in the writing or journalism scene, especially in Nigeria, will tell you that opportunities are not readily handed out. I receive more rejections on my pitches, than I get acceptances. But the acceptances make it all worth it and I get to tell stories that are important to me. The fear of failure in medical school is a hydra head and often spills into other aspects of life. After having endured my greatest failure yet, and the world not crashing, it seemed I should at least try my hands at other things, even if I'm afraid I'm going to fail at it.
I was pleasantly surprised how the skills I developed in journalism are complementary to medicine. For example, there’s a lot of similarities with history-taking in patients to interviewing sources for a story. Both require asking pointed questions in a way that you get as much relevant information within your timeframe, and both require you to establish rapport and trust enough for them to give you helpful information. Learning this practically outside of medical school has helped me relate better with my patients now I’m back on clinicals, in that I know the value of more developed communication and comprehension skills in getting to a diagnosis faster.
Connecting with different communities and covering political issues through writing has also given me a deeper understanding of the complexities of my patient’s experiences within societal contexts. Even though I won’t always meld journalism with medicine, I am aware of a gap in the reporting of health issues in Nigeria, and I would love the opportunity to help bridge that gap, one story at a time. I recently published a feature piece on Al Jazeera on Nigeria’s unregulated human egg industry and there will be many more pertinent issues to cover, no doubt. I also enjoy the change of pace and perspective that travel and food reporting offers as a break from the intensity of medicine.
Approaching Med School in a New Light
Having spent so much time out of med school and resuming now, I feel freer. Accepting failure is a huge part of it, but it is all so very complex as well. I thought I was ready to move on. But on the first day of university, I (together with two other colleagues retaking the class) entered the classroom through the back door, and conversations quietened as eyes turned back. I felt the resurfacing of shame and my chest tightening. However, I am trying to not be sucked into the atmosphere of fear, and focus on my studies, making new friends and my rediscovered passion.
Writing is an outlet I desperately needed and I was grateful for the opportunity to explore it more fully. With remote interviews I continue to write wherever I am. Because of this, I get to indulge in my love for travelling and eating out alone. Although my choices are stifled by the growing insecurities in my country, I have seen new places and met interesting people I otherwise wouldn't have seen if I had stayed in school. The memories and clarity I achieved during my hiatus will help me soar through the low periods of medical education and give me perspective on the multifaceted lives we lead. This new world wouldn’t have opened up to me if I hadn't failed paediatrics.
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